Israel's Culture War Is Beyond Left and Right

Avi Shilon
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Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Avi Shilon

The current “culture war” is best understood in the context of the struggle among different currents within Israeli society, to which the left-right battle is secondary. MK Oren Hazan is a good example of this. It is easy to read his story as evidence of moral decline or the problematic structure of the Likud Central Committee, but as a phenomenon Hazan is interesting mainly because he represents a sector that has not yet been categorized sociologically. In Israeli slang it’s known as “tzfonim-arsim,” which could be loosely translated as “nouveau-riche players from Tel Aviv’s northern suburbs.”

Unlike arsim, a derogatory term generally associated with Mizrahim, heavy gold jewelry and origins outside of Tel Aviv, tzfonim-arsim are not associated with any particular ethnic group. They can be found, perhaps surprisingly, in the regions between the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Aviv and the city’s satellite towns. They come from families that are comfortable, either economically or socially, and tend to look down their noses at arsim but at the same time always wear designer labels. They prefer going out to reading, their love for Israel is intuitive and never in doubt. After completing their military service, tzfonim-arsim travel abroad for long periods, knowing that when they return they can get a job with Abba or open their own business with his help.

Hazan pushed this envelope to beyond the breaking point: Instead of a slapdash post-army trip, he became a casino manager; the job his father (former Likud MK Yehiel Hazan) helped him find when he came back to Israel brought him into the Knesset. But the fact that the Likud Central Committee welcomed him, and that the majority of Israelis were lukewarm to him but not horrified, is partly connected to the prevalence of the sector that he represents.

It is only natural that eventually a representative of the tzfonim-arsim would join the Knesset. It is difficult to presume that he would be any worse than other MKs. On one hand, he has already managed to be rude to Meretz MK Esawi Freige (“Jib alhawaya,” he told Freige – “Show me your ID” in Arabic), but on the other hand he submitted a bill that is critical for supporters of coexistence, mandating that Arabic be taught starting in first grade.

Just as Hazan does not necessarily represent the right, but rather a vulgar current in Israeli society, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev does not fight on behalf of the movement’s values; it is doubtful that the motives of she who was the army’s spokeswoman during the Gaza disengagement are ideological. Regev, similarly to figures such as Judy Nir Mozes Shalom, represents a new and complex type of femininity that is not necessarily tied to ethnic identity. Her feminism was born not in lessons about gender, but rather out of an understanding that power struggles are a part of life. She is courageous and independent, but she is also blind to nuance, to the other, and clearly to cultural genres. She makes use of right-wing arguments, but only in order to fight for her position, her right to decide for those who used to be the deciders.

But then the remarks of Oded Kotler and Yair Garbuz weren’t necessarily made in the name of enlightenment, either. His statements against “kissers of amulets” seem mainly an attempt to protect the compromised status of his own stream, the old Ashkenazi left, from which most young artists are alienated.

For these reasons it can be said that anyone who understands the culture war in the narrow sense of a political battle between left and right is missing the bigger picture: Israel – in part because the prolonged Netanyahu government in any event obviates discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians – is locked in a battle for the reshaping of its identity. The kulturkampf is an expression of the struggle between various genres and subgenres of “Israeliness,” some of which have not yet won recognition and others that are fighting to maintain their power.

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